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Reviewed by:
  • Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival
  • Betsy Draine
Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, eds. Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival. Athens: Ohio UP, 1988. 187 pp. $22.95.

In the two years since this edition of essays on Doris Lessing went to press, Lessing has published two books of political writing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside and The Wind Blows A way Our Words: A Firsthand Account of the Afghan Resistance, as well as a novel, titled The Fifth Child, which is based on sociobiological notions that have disturbing political implications. Far from outdating this critical collection, the recent additions to Lessing's oeuvre render Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival all the more pertinent and timely. For the editors, Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, have chosen for this volume eleven essays that address the political dimensions of Lessing's work. Together, these essays provide a vigorous interrogation of Lessing's texts in relation to the politics they engage and construct.

Frederick C. Stern opens the discussion by dispelling the impression that the early Lessing was in any meaningful sense a Marxist writer. Stern sees "Lessing as a novelist whose characters' ideology is consistent," grounded in radical humanism rather than in Marxism. Focusing on The Golden Notebook and later novels, Molly Hite and Alvin Sullivan characterize Lessing's fiction as consciously inconsistent in both ideology and technique. In the fiction between 1962 and 1979, they trace Lessing's rejection of both humanism and Marxism insofar as either assumes the possibility of a coherent world view. However, when Jeanne Murray Walker analyzes the puzzling Memoirs of a Survivor in terms of its treatment of modes of exchange, she arrives at a convincing evaluation of that novel as coherent (and perhaps also humanist and Marxist) in its insistence that we maintain our humanity through reciprocal exchanges of social and cultural goods.

Katherine Fishburn holds that The Golden Notebook models dialectical thinking and that it ought to be taught as a subversive document. Elizabeth Abel and Nicole Ward Jouve treat Lessing's texts in the unexpected contexts of feminist psychoanalysis and l'écriture féminine. Taking a more traditional feminist line, Victoria Middleton traces the connections between Lessing and her literary foremother, Olive Schreiner. In their stance of respectful appreciation, these essays contrast markedly with Carey Kaplan's and Lorna Sage's tough-minded critiques of the Canopus in Argos series. Both critics contend that Lessing's saga of interplanetary colonization reduplicates unwittingly the pernicious ideology of British imperialism. The mode of suspicion continues in the last contribution to the volume, Eve Bertelsen's brilliant analysis of the struggle for power within an interview with Doris Lessing, which, in turn, Bertelsen offers as a model of Lessing's other texts.

All eleven of these provocative and well-written essays are previously unpublished; most originated as Modern Language Association convention papers presented at special sessions arranged by the Doris Lessing Society. In their Introduction, the editors offer a useful history of the Society and a survey of the papers presented at its sessions. But scholars should note that the editors silently drop out ten of the seventy-five papers presented during the period they cover, 1971 to 1985. Oddly, their listing of scholarly books on Lessing stops at 1982. [End Page 709] The most current bibliography of criticism on Lessing thus remains Eve Bertelsen's appendix to her 1985 volume of essays, Doris Lessing (Johannesburg: Southern African Literature Series, No. 5, McGraw Hill).

Betsy Draine
University of Wisconsin—Madison


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